Thursday, February 22, 2018

Best of 2017, #3: I, Tonya

Two thoughts on this movie:
A new tool: The fake-out redemption scene. This movie has a scene in it that’s very similar to a scene in my play, and I think it works well in both places: Like so many stories that seek to redeem a terrible person, this movie features an even-worse parent. I’ve talked about this before with Kind Hearts and Coronets, Downhill Racer, “The Sopranos”, and Trainwreck: Our hero may be bad, but they come by it honestly, and at least they’re better than their terrible parent.

But these scenes can be just as unsatisfying onscreen as they are in real life. We want some human connection between parent and child. We want a breakthrough and maybe some redemption. But you also want to be true to your character, and if your parent is awful enough to justify terrible behavior, then they may be unredeemable. So you can cheat to sneak in such a scene: You can have the parent finally tell the child what they’ve always wanted to hear, and give the kid some emotional catharsis, but only because the parent is manipulating the child.

In the scene in which Tonya Harding’s mom finally tells her what she wants to hear, my first thought was “I don’t really buy this plot turn”, then I realized that Allison Janney was good enough to sell the scene if it were genuine, so if I wasn’t buying it, there was a probably reason for that. Then I realized, “Hey, this is just like the scene I wrote!” It was a fake-out and I thought it worked well, putting a successful button on their relationship, even if it was fake.
Tricky tone: The big question with this movie is, “Should a movie with this much domestic violence be this fun?” Is it trivializing the violence? Turning it into entertainment? …Worst of all, does it treat this violence as no big deal because the victim is Tonya Harding?

But ultimately, I would say the movie answers all these questions satisfactorily and pulls off its tricky tone, and it all comes down to one moment: That first out-of-nowhere face-punch. Because of the movie’s fun, rock-fueled uptempo tone, I was totally unprepared for the domestic violence to begin, and it hit me in the face as well. I felt the shock, betrayal and fear that comes with that punch all the more because of the tone, and that’s what you want when you tell stories: to make the audience feel the same pain the hero is feeling.

After that punch, the uptempo and humorous tone continues, despite the violence getting worse, but the friction is maintained. The fun tone kept me thinking, “Surely the violence will end. There will be redemption. This will become a love story again.” And of course, that’s just what Tonya is thinking as she goes back to him over and over. The tricky tone keeps us in her head, keeping the violence continually shocking and painful, specifically because it violates the tone. It thought it was a very effective tool.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Best of 2017, #4: The Disaster Artist

As a general rule, audiences find it hard to care about losers. It’s even worse if it’s a jerk-loser. Our heart might go out to a nice-guy-loser, or we might admire the success of a jerk-winner despite the fact that he’s an asshole, but jerk-losers are the worst of all possible worlds, right?

And yet this movie presents a jerk-loser who is easy to care for, and even admire. How does it do that? There are always way to make characters easier to care about, even if they have a lot of liabilities:

  • He’s passionate. We like Tommy right away when he over-emotes in acting class, then we like him even more when he forces his classmate Greg to act a scene loudly while eating in a restaurant, overcoming his fear of audiences. Passion goes a long way. We admire his daring, even when he dares to do something badly.
  • He’s active. Nevertheless, our admiration for Tommy’s passion peters out before too long as it become clear that he’s talentless, belligerent, and impervious to reality. Just when we can’t take it anymore he earns our admiration back in the most reliable way: He solves his problems by being very, very active. Luckily, he has a mysterious fortune, and decides to use to make his own starring vehicle.
  • He’s ironic. After his horribleness on set, if Tommy succeeded traditionally, we would take offense, because we don’t like to see bad behavior rewarded, but it’s hard to complain when he wins in such an ironic fashion, achieving fame and fortune by making the worst movie of all time.
  • He’s not the POV character. Who is the hero of this movie? Tommy is an active-jerk-loser, whereas Greg is a passive-nice-guy-loser. Neither is ideal, to put it mildly, but together they get the job done. We identify with Greg, but find Tommy to be compelling.

The result is a wonderful stand-up-and-cheer movie about two losers failing so utterly that they make the world a happier place to be.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Best of 2017, #5: The Florida Project

Despite the undeniable raw power of this movie, I was somewhat reluctant to have it on the list, because, as I’ve talked about in past years, the main thing I look for these days at the movies is humanity. Do these characters seem fully human to me? Have the writers found universal humanity in the hearts of their characters? For many of the most acclaimed films these days, the answer is no. 

And at first this seemed like another example. In this bleak look at the lives of a six year old girl and her prostitute mother living in an Orlando hotel room, I feared that the writers were looking at these characters too much from the outside: Look at these wretched lives, and despair!

My fear as I watched was that neither the creators nor the audience were fully inhabiting the movie, frozen out by our ice-hard hero.

But then she finally melts. Just as the movie has rolled the rock uphill for as long as possible, CPS shows up to (finally) take Moonee away from her terrible mom, and at first Moonee barely reacts, then she runs away to a neighboring hotel, finds her one friend, and bursts into some very-well-earned tears. Suddenly, after 100 frozen-out minutes, we’re allowed in, assured that yes, she’s human, heartbreakingly so, and it’s all worth it.
On another note, was I the only once who kept thinking of the documentary Queen of Versailles while watching this? Although one is fiction and the other non-fiction, they make a good pair, both about unloved kids being raised by crooks in the shadow of Disneyworld, with the only difference being that one family is filthy rich and the other is filthy poor.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Best of 2017, Runner-Up #6: Call Me By Your Name

This is a good, old-fashioned coming of age romance. Beautifully shot and acted.  It felt like Truffaut.

Let’s talk about a twist on the “I understand you” scene: Call it the “I don’t understand you but I find that somewhat sexy” scene.

Both of our potential lovers are intellectual Jewish American young men enjoying a lazy summer in Italy, so they have a lot in common, but they’re also separated by temperament and age. They spend most of the movie circling each other and only get together late in the story.

Early on there’s a great scene where the older one, Oliver, begins to be smitten with the younger one, Elio, who plays a Bach composition on the guitar, and then, by request, plays it on the piano a few times.

  • ELIO plays the piece on the piano. OLIVER leans on the door looking in. The music sounds very different from when he played it on his guitar.
  • You changed it. What did you do to it? Is it Bach?
  • ELIO
  • I just played it the way Liszt would have played it if he’d jimmied around with it.
  • Just play it again, please!
  • ELIO begins playing the piece again. OLIVER listens, then speaks:
  • I can’t believe you changed it again.
  • ELIO
  • Not by much. That’s how Busoni would've played it if he’d altered Liszt’s version.
  • Can’t you just play the Bach the way Bach wrote it?
  • ELIO
  • Bach never wrote it for guitar. In fact, we’re not even sure it’s Bach at all.
  • OLIVER Forget I asked.
  • ELIO
  • Okay, okay. No need to get so worked up.
  • ELIO begins to play the Bach in its original form. OLIVER, who had turned away, comes back to the door. ELIO says, softly, over his playing:
  • It’s young Bach, he dedicated it to his brother.
  • He plays it beautifully, as if sending it to OLIVER as a gift. 

Oliver isn’t just flirting, he’s genuinely frustrated by Elio’s intellectually-bratty explanations for the changes: He’s annoyed, but he’s also intrigued and bewitched. Elio is now a puzzle he wants to solve.  Crucially, we feel the same way.  Who would not be both repelled and attracted by this brilliant-but-arrogant kid?   The best romances are those in which we can see and feel contradictory reasons for the romance to succeed and not succeed, along with the heroes. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Best of 2017 Runner-Up #7: Dunkirk

I didn’t see this movie until it came out on DVD, and I knew very little about it. All I knew was that it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, that it had four movie stars in it, and that it told the story of the Dunkirk invasion in many locations: on the beaches, in the air, and on the water. Based on these three facts, I naturally assumed that it was going to be another bloated 3 hour mess, with lots of Churchill speeches, etc.

It wasn’t until I got the DVD in the mail that I was shocked to see a 106 minute runtime. Had Nolan actually made a non-bloated movie?? When I watched it, I discovered that it did have some of Nolan’s usual problems:

  • As usual, the cinematography was too muddy, which meant that I couldn’t tell the two black-haired beach-heroes apart, and I also couldn’t tell whose plane was whose in the aerial dogfights.
  • It’s got yet another overbearing Hans Zimmer score…

But the movie works, and even Zimmer’s score works. Because so many stretches of the movie were dialogue-free, Zimmer had enough room to play, for once. How did Nolan make such a slim, elegant movie, after making so many messes?

  • We have three stories, but they’re all based around the same event. To do this, he mixes up the chronology, creating a gradual realization for the viewer that the three locations are on slightly different timelines. One storyline happens over the course of two days, one over a day, and one over an hour or two. I’m not crazy about this, because I never fully understood it, but it undeniably makes for an exciting movie. Each storyline gets a nice mix of action and silent stretches in a hypnotic pattern.
  • He’s tapping into modern-day national pain, both in England and America. Once again, it feels like the Nazis are winning, making it all the more terrifying to see the moment they seemed to win the war in the last century.  It’s a timely reminder that the Nazis weren’t destined to lose by the tide of history: They almost won, and in the end they only lost because a bunch of people fought really hard.  
  • Almost every Nolan movie before this had its fair share of ludicrous plotting (which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.) I didn’t think he could handle reality. He must have found it very liberating to have a movie where didn’t have to constantly ask himself, “will they buy this next plot turn?” He’s not selling anything, so he’s not falling all over himself. He knows we’ll accept it, so he relaxes.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Best of 2017: Runners Up #10, 9, and 8

Spoilers Abound!
#10: The Post. I don’t have much to say about it. Spielberg, Hanks and Streep are all somewhat on auto-pilot, but each is very talented, so that’s not the worst thing. Longtime readers will know that I have my problems with Spielberg, but he’s got good meaty material here and makes the most out of it.
#9: The Big Sick. Again, not much to say. A very moving, very funny film. I will say that Still’s Disease is one of many that I’ve had. I didn’t go into a coma but it was very unpleasant .
#8: The Shape of Water. An overpraised movie, but still a lot of fun, gorgeous to look at, and a welcome showcase for the talents of Sally Hawkins. It reminds me of this recent rule:

The Value of the Baby in the Basket: Will audiences accept a movie in which a janitor enters into a sexual relationship with a fish-creature? Yes and no. This movie plays with the idea of interspecies sex, but then reveals at the end that no, she’s actually a merperson herself, so it’s cool. It turns out that she’s a literal baby in a basket: She was found on the shore, and those marks on her neck everybody assumed were scratches were actually gills. At first she just seems like a random everywoman, but then we find out she’s got a benighted destiny that the movie is fulfilling. Like all baby in a basket stories, the movie is having it both ways, letting us identify with an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, then, when that’s stretched credibility too far, assuring us that no, this is an extraordinary person merely fulfilling her destiny. It’s also a cheat that allows our star-crossed lovers to be together after all. It works in a fairy-tale-ish sort of way, but not as drama, because it’s too neat.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Didn’t Make the Best of 2017 List: Logan, Blade Runner 2049, and The Last Jedi

Warning: Spoilers abound!
Time for a confession: James and I actually recorded a podcast episode where we debated the merits of The Last Jedi, but I sounded way too sour and inarticulate so I shelved it. I feel bad about that, because James was very passionate and well-spoken in his praise for the movie, but the episode was ultimately off-brand: Just 90 minutes of me saying “shitty” over and over, without any discussion of writing advice. But let me admit now that I was really bowled over by his enthusiasm. I just kept saying “I wish I’d seen the movie you saw.”

As for the movie I saw, it seemed to fit in with two other acclaimed sci-fi sequels this year, and I pretty much loathed all three. The three movies shared three unforgivable sins:

Too damn long: Logan was 137 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 was 164, The Last Jedi was 152. There was no reason for any of these movies to be longer than two hours. Both Logan and The Last Jedi came to a logical end around the 100 minute mark and then just kept going and going. The Last Jedi had two massive subplots (the casino planet and the mutiny) that just fizzled out and had no effect on the story.

Too disrespectful of the original: It was bizarre how similar Logan and The Last Jedi were:

  • Both were the ninth movies in their respective sagas.
  • Both undid everything good that had happened in the previous eight movies.
  • Both had the hero of the first three movies die miserably.
  • Both had a very specific plot point in common: A beloved character from the previous movies was running a school for superpowered teens but saw that school destroyed when he turned murderous towards his own student(s), so now he lives as a secluded hermit.

Ultimately, this is what all discussions of The Last Jedi come down to. Does a new writer/director have the right to come in for movie #9 and ruin all the happiness of the previous 8 movies? There were a lot of reasons to dislike this movie, but I think this was the biggest reason for the backlash. For a lot of viewers, including me, the answer is simply no. The easiest thing to do is take something that someone else has built up and tear it down. If you want to destroy value, destroy your own value, not someone else’s.

(These three movies made me appreciate Gene Luen Yang’s brilliant “Avatar: The Last Airbender” sequel graphic novels even more. He seems to have set himself the rule that he couldn’t in any way undo the happy ending of the series: The couples can’t break up, the villains can’t escape, evil can’t rise again, etc. So how do you tell good stories with those constraints? Well, it’s hard, but Yang is a great writer, so he pulls it off beautifully.)

No fun: Reading the glowing reviews of these movies was a pretty baffling experience for me. Doesn’t anybody want to have any fun anymore? The previous movies in these series were enjoyable. (Okay, not the previous two Wolverine movies, but this was more of a sequel to X2 or Days of Future Past, both of which were fun). These three movies were grim, airless slogs, especially Blade Runner 2049. I wasn’t just checking my watch because they were too long, but because all three bored me out of my mind. Even The Force Awakens, which I had a lot of problems with, was at least lively and buoyant. Empire Strikes Back was dark, but Yoda was delightful. There was nothing to love about these three movies, which is a problem, because there was a lot to dislike.

So just as I was loathe to post the podcast, I’m loathe to post this post, because my goal is never to just be sour and complain-y, especially about things that other people loved, but boy oh boy I disliked these movies. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Interview on the "On Grit" Podcast

Hi guys, let’s delay the post that was going to go up today until tomorrow, because we have something neat instead. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly gritty guy, but Rigel Patterson at the podcast “On Grit” read my book and wanted to talk to me about my advice and my experiences. I talk too fast and I’m (as always) too negative about some things, but Rigel’s a good interviewer and we have some good discussions. Give it a listen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Best of 2017 Introduction, and Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hi guys! So it was a pretty good year for movies. Unlike previous years, where my list had lots of idiosyncratic choices, my list is mostly Oscar nominees this year. I don’t know if this means that I’m changing or the Oscars are, but I suspect it’s the latter. My top two probably wouldn’t have been nominees in previous years.

As usual, I’ll mention the movies I haven’t seen first: The Darkest HourIt, Atomic Blonde, Logan Lucky, MotherDownsizing, and others I’m not thinking of.

How we’re going to do it this year is first we’re going to talk about four movies that didn’t make the list (one today, three tomorrow), then I’ll talk about five runners-up (for three days), then I’ll do my top five (with maybe a couple of days on #1). So let’s start with:
Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s a lot to like about this movie, especially Frances McDormand’s fierce and funny performance, but boy oh boy did it fall apart. Here are three problems:

Moral murkiness: People have been saying that this is a prescient “MeToo” movie, but is it? Going in, I only knew that this was a movie about a righteous mother who was upset that the police had made no arrests in the rape and murder of her daughter. Based on that, I assumed that this was going to be the case where everybody knew a rich man’s son did it, but the cops wouldn’t arrest him for political reasons. Instead it was a very different movie, where it quickly became clear that a good cop had really exhausted every angle of the case and just came up short.

This is in some ways a braver choice, but it means that the movie actually feels more emblematic of the MeToo backlash: A woman is so upset about a rape that (according to one conversation in the movie) she wants to throw civil rights and due process out the window and now she’s lashing out at her own allies and hurting her own cause! Not surprisingly, this is a movie written by a man.

Not the way the world works: There’s nothing inherently wrong with wading into morally murky territory like that, but it’s a tricky line to walk, and this movie drunkenly veers all over it. McDormand’s character starts off with the notion that this police department is too scared to make arrests, but soon she’s taking advantage of that to a ludicrous degree. The first hint is when she viciously hurts the dentist and the police let her go, but then she firebombs the police station and the cops don’t care! (A cop later confirms that they knew she did it, as of course they would.)  That’s not the way the world works. Not to mention that one of the cops engages in an assault so egregious that it’s crazy he doesn’t get arrested, even in a corrupt town. It’s ludicrously over the top.

The Sorkin Stammer: But this is what I most dislike about the movie. The movie is in some ways critical of McDormand’s self-righteousness, but at other times it indulges it to an annoying degree, pitting her against stammering straw men in a way that’s supposed to make us stand up and cheer but just made me roll my eyes. Nothing is worse that her denunciation of the priest, who just sits there sputtering, letting her score all the points. Here’s the thing about priests: they love to be denounced. That’s their comfort zone. They’ve trained their whole lives for that.  I didn’t buy it.  Always avoid the Sorkin stammer.

Tomorrow: Three acclaimed sci-fi movies